Tour-tle Power

Here at Custom NYC Tours, my specialty is, of course, custom tours. Many tour guides have a niche specialty in their realm of NYC tourism— food tours, gangster/crime tours, Broadway tours, etc. I certainly have my own NYC passions, but my real specialty is a little bit of everything. Name me a topic or theme, and I promise you I can craft you an amazing custom tour out of it. I sincerely believe that is not something most NYC guides can do, and my goal has always been to provide people with unique New York experiences.

I’ve gotten some great custom tour requests in the past— helping people trace their family’s ancestry & heritage in Brooklyn, TV & movie site requests, & more— but I got my favorite request so far last month. I was asked to create a tour themed around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as the customer’s two children were huge fans. This would be a fun family tour. My first instinct was to think of the filming locations for the original 1990 live-action TMNT film, but since that came 20+ years before the kids were even born, I guessed correctly they hadn’t seen it (my own nephews love the current cartoon series, and I knew that’s the current way most know that universe). Since-- don't tell the kids, shhh-- the Turtles don't actually exist, I decided to approach the tour as "the New York City that the world of TMNT inhabits". So more of that old-school New York.

The goal was to make the tour as enjoyable for the adults, as well as the kids.

The tour began in Tribeca by the Ghostbusters Firehouse (always a fun destination) to discuss historic old New York, and how it is represented in pop culture. This, not Times Square or Hudson Yards, is the type of New York we see in TMNT. Beautiful old cast-iron buildings, smokey streets, windy alleys. We then headed toward Chinatown, via Cortlandt Alley, NYC's most filmed & photogenic alleyway. Now the TMNT are supposed to be of Japanese origin, but there is no Japanese neighborhood like this in NYC, so Chinatown did the trick, and the adults loved the neighborhood. Our main stretch was Mott St where we stopped at a martial arts store that sells authentic ninja gear (costumes, swords, nunchucks, etc). Kids loved that. Then, we headed to historic Doyers St (aka: "the bloody angle") and talked about the old clans and gangs of Chinatown and that bloody history, as well as the related history of the Five Points. From there, it was a short walk down to the scenic Civic Center. Our final stop: the Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall subway station, to take the 6 train loop through the old, decommissioned 1904 City Hall station (in the second movie and other iterations, they depict their lair as being in that station). Everyone loved that. Then we wrapped up at a nearby pizza place as the Turtles, living every child’s fantasy, subside on a diet of entirely pizza.

This was a wonderful tour on a lovely Spring evening, creating a unique experience for my Canadian visitors, and was the type of experience that made me want to be a professional guide in the first place.

Looking for a similar experience? Contact me today to begin planning your own custom tour!

This ad was part of a recent initiative by the NYC tourism bureau to encourage family tourism into New York. The Turtles were chosen as the official ambassadors of this campaign which featured numerous ads around the region.

This ad was part of a recent initiative by the NYC tourism bureau to encourage family tourism into New York. The Turtles were chosen as the official ambassadors of this campaign which featured numerous ads around the region.

My Tour Philosophy

In the FAQ section of this website, the first question I ask and answer is "Why should I choose you?". After all, there are many options for tours in New York-- walking guides, double-decker buses, water taxis, & more-- and all provide an amazing service. So, again, why me? The answer, I believe, is that I am providing something more personal. As my home page says, I aim to create memories.

I've seen guides leading big groups that will spend 2 hours covering only a few blocks in a circle. Stopping every few minutes to stand ahead of the group and give them a 10-15 minute static history lecture on a corner. I admire the amount of time & scholarship that goes into such a tour. But, I also see the participants staring at their phones, shuffling their feet, whispering among themselves, and I wonder... is this tour a lasting memory for them?

I travel a lot myself, and love taking tours in the cities I visit. But one thing that I found, and my fiancé concurred, was that in the days after the tour, I had only fleeting memories of the facts, dates, and other information thrown at me during the tour. But in a good tour, we had a clear memory of specific things that we saw, the basic historical context for what we had seen, and some of the little secrets the guide imparted onto the group. Plus, great photo opportunities. That is what lasted. So I decided to give tours that aim to maximize that experience.

An example: When I started doing High Line tours, as I pointed out the Hudson River at the start, almost every tour group has asked me to show them where on the river Sully landed the plane (answer: parallel to the USS Intrepid and the Manhattan Cruise Terminal). I realized almost of them would remember that. And the art pieces & design flourishes that I showed them. And the general experience of the park. But probably not the fact that the original High Line rail viaduct opened in 1934, or that the Friends of the High Line's annual operating budget is $11.5 million dollars.

In short, I focus more on show versus tell.

(Or, think of my tours like an Aaron Sorkin show: Walk and talk.)

I limit most of my tours to 10-12 people max to make sure everyone has a personal experience, and is able to talk to me and ask questions (or have me take pictures of them!). I provide customers with the basic history they need, show them some historical photos for reference, and encourage follow-up questions as we go. The tour is a conversation, not a lecture. 

I aim to cover as much ground as possible in every tour, to maximize how much a visitors sees in their limited time in NY. For instance, the Financial District and the World Trade Center? That's one tour for me, not two tours... after all, they're right next to each other, and part of the same (continuing) story of downtown. So you will walk a lot on my tour. But you will see so much more than on many other tours, and (I hope) have a real lasting memory of the experience.

For some visitors, that's not what they want. And that is fair, and I am happy to point such visitors toward other great companies I know who can give them the experience they need. But if you are a traveler (or a local) who prefers the type of tour that I've described, then... that's why me.

I love doing these tours. And I hope that passion will be contagious.

Street Art

One of the top walking tours I have listed on my site is dedicated to street art. "Street art" is a term, however, that I realize is foreign or vague to many people outside of major urban areas. What defines "street art"? How is it different than graffiti or vandalism? That's subjective, but here's my take, and my thoughts on why I am passionate for it.

To me, the main thing that differentiates street art from graffiti/vandalism is the level of craft. The stereotypical graffiti-- someone's "tag" scribbled with a spraypaint can on a wall-- takes no effort or time. It's the artistic version of a smashed window. True street art takes time & artistry. One other differentiation is, more and more, street art is being legitimized. Many street artists now work with business & buildings owners to gain access to walls/spaces for their art... it is a good exchange: the artist gets a canvas, and the property owners get new eyes on their space.

Take for example this piece I saw in Brooklyn:

This meets both of the above criteria: it was done with permission (as part of the community-wide 'Bushwick Collective') and took days to complete. It is a true piece of art... only the canvas here is a wall.

It's really wonderful to wander around a neighborhood like Bushwick and see the new pieces artists have spread around, and to see the joy and attention this art is bring to visitors.

A major project just completed on Manhattan's Lower East Side is the 100 Gates Project, an effort connecting businesses with artists to create murals on their roll-down gates. Much like Bushwick's collective, this was a win for businesses, artists, and the community.

The most famous example in NYC of popular (and sanctioned) street art is the now-defunct 5Pointz project in Queens, NY. Immortalized in pop culture, the owner of large, industrial warehouse let a street art collective use the entire building exterior as a showcase for artists. The regularly-changing art drew visitors from all over the world.

(The building was, sadly, sold and demolished a couple of years ago)

Some street art, however, can be both legitimate and anarchic. Some great examples of this are the unsanctioned works of Banksy, who has gained international acclaim for his guerilla art. Also, the Berlin Wall became covered in street art and graffiti by the end (mostly the western side), as Germans expressed their frustrations with the wall through this art. One section of this wall-- and its art!-- is preserved in a midtown Manhattan office plaza. A surprising example of legitimate, but originally unsanctioned, street art is the famous Wall St bull statue. Contrary to popular belief, this famous sculpture was not sanctioned by the city. Italian-born artist Arturo Di Modica spent $360,000 of his own money to create it, as a gift to the people of New York, and installed it without permission in front of the New York Stock Exchange in December 1989. The city planned to remove the 'vandalism', but kept it (and moved it to its long-standing location by Bowling Green) due to popular outcry. And what would the Financial District be without this beloved icon?

Street art is, to me, a living and breathing sign of a city's creative heart. It takes drab walls and squares and adds color to them. It draws you to neighborhoods and communities you might otherwise not have discovered. This is why I am so passionate about it.

I hope that, by offering these tours, I can pass on this passion to visitors... and help them see parts of the city that are vibrant and alive. And, of course, to continue the discussion of how we define this evolving art form.